Queen of Katwe (2016) by Mira Nair
Review by Zach Dennis
It is easy to forget the inspiration found in sports.
Amidst the animosity and fervor associated with its most prominent forms, sports become more of a cult rather than an engagement between the individual and the community, the individual and another person, and the individual and the mind.
I think it could be simple to brush off Queen of Katwe as yet another cut-and-dry sports drama from Disney that is more focused on pulling emotions from our beings like the seeds of a pumpkin, but the film’s ability to radiate these base concepts of athletics and competition allows the Mira Nair-directed drama to be a multi-faceted story that examines familial duty, the splendor of competition, and the segregation of class in its many forms.
Queen of Katwe refers to Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young girl who lives in Uganda and begins to attend a church ministry-led chess club. The club is run by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a displaced engineer looking to make some money and an impact before he follows his true passion. Phiona takes an instant liking to chess and begins to attend the class regularly with her brother, Mugabi Brian (Martin Kabanza), to the dismay of their mother, Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o), whose concern lies with much more important responsibilities such as making money to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.
Familial duty is the dictator for much of Phiona’s life to this point. Her mother lacks any formal education and her older sister is bypassing it to spend more time with her motorbike driving boyfriend. For Phiona, life doesn’t reach much farther than the basket of food in front of her, and even that shouldn’t be expected each day.
One can understand Nakku’s plea to Coach Katende when he requests that Phiona and Brian attend a nearby chess tournament at a prestigious school. It is a chance to break from the mold set in Katwe both by their mother and by their society, and allow these two children to become something more than life-long traders.
Nair excels at presenting the notion of class to the story as a simple reminder to the hurdles that someone like Phiona faces in attempting to rise above her upbringings. When they arrive at the school, the group of kids from Katwe are immediately the outcasts. In her first chess match, she plays the most skilled player at the school, whom immediately wipes his hand after shaking hers.
It doesn’t matter for long as she makes quick work of him.
As the story progresses, and Phiona becomes more and more skilled at chess, she begins to recognize the world that surrounds her. As her mother sits at home scrounging for food and going through the daily routine of attempting to sell off enough to buy more, Phiona enjoys a meal including ketchup — a delicacy the kids never thought was possible — in a foreign land. When she comes home, it is dissatisfying to be back in this lackluster reality and it becomes a strife between her and her mother as she expects the best to be handed to her because of her newfound gift.
Nalwanga, who has no acting credits besides this, does an exceptional job with the character — carrying her with enough confidence and reservation to make her seem instantly relatable. Most of this comes from the reality checks by Coach Katende, whom Oyelowo provides with a gentle nurturing personality. But Nyong’o consistently steals the show as Nakku, who realizes she lacks the education that Phiona is being offered but has enough wisdom to understand what she has to do for her daughter.
In one scene, she pawns off an elegant piece of fabric that belonged to her mother to a friendly merchant. The two clearly had some history and he offers a larger price if it would mean her accompanying him to dinner, but she declines. While many other characters tell her to re-marry over the course of the film, this is a woman not looking to live life for just herself.
Her sacrifice is inspiring and Nyong’o plays it with a fierceness that never allows her to become weak, but as strong-willed as her previous work.
Queen of Katwe recognizes where it comes from, but I would be ashamed and disgusted to hear someone say they didn’t at least remotely enjoy this sweet film. Nair doesn’t craft the film with the multi-layers that something like Monsoon Wedding had, but she allows it to become a story that includes its own levels of satisfying richness. It reminds us that sports can be a beacon of inspiration in the same way art can — allowing someone to escape their surroundings and explore a new world.